“It is disgraceful not to be able to reply, with some degree of certainty, to the two simplest questions in life, is it not?” asks Dr. Peter Winston as he sits behind his spacious office desk. “What will you be? What will you do?”
Madelaine Hopkins knows that this statement is supposed to make her feel ashamed, but she does not feel like humoring the doctor by complying. Instead she replies, “Well, your simulation is supposed to help me answer these two questions, isn’t it?”
She nods at the bed across the room, with a half-circle ring on one end and a monitoring screen on the other. Hanging above the bed are Dr. Winston’s PhD certificates in neuroscience (year 2069) and developmental psychology (2073).
“Of course.” Dr. Winston looks back down at the charts in his hands. “Let’s see here… it seems like you’ve had a healthy study schedule at school, and your extracurriculars are impressive as well. Glowing recommendations from past instructors, and your aptitude tests are in the top 0.1% of seventeen-year-olds in the world.”
He glances up at Madelaine and gives her an amused smile. “You’re the perfect prodigy. Now all we need to do is help you find the identity that you seek.”
Madelaine nods. That is why her parents were willing to shell out close to a hundred thousand dollars for the VR simulation, after all. So that she can find out who she wants to be. What she wants to do with this life, this intelligence she has been gifted.
“Shall we, then?” Dr. Winston stands up from his chair and moves toward the rolling bed across the room, gesturing for Madelaine to follow.
“Just lay your head here inside this silver ring,” he says, and begins to adjust the settings on the screen at the bottom end of the bed. As he flips through different slides, checking this box and that, he reiterates again how the simulation will progress.
“When I turn on the VR console, two thin needles will extend out of the brain mapper—that’s the silver semi-circle that currently surrounds your head,” Dr. Winston explains, staring at Madelaine with kind eyes. However, she manages to detect the lofty tone in his voice, almost patronizing.
The doctor continues. “You will feel a ringing prick on the inside of your temples as the needles enter. After a few seconds, you will feel completely relaxed, and you won’t feel a thing after the chemicals seep into your brain.”
He reaches over and checks the brain mapper, making sure that everything is moving accordingly. “As you know, the simulation will last five real-time hours. You will go through the three lifetimes of occupations that you and your parents picked out during our last appointment. Should you feel the need to jump to the next occupation, or even leave the virtual reality world, all you have to do is think it with your mind. The brain mapper will automatically pick up your intentions, and you will be awakened in a matter of seconds. Is that clear?”
“Great. So are you ready?”
Madelaine smiles. Her parents have already wired the fees. They have all already signed the confidentiality agreements. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” she says.
“Then let’s get started. The next time you wake up, you’ll be immediately submerged in the career world. Be prepared.”
Immediately Madelaine hears a beeping in her ears, her peripherals catching two needles inching toward her.
Her hands tingle with excitement, she cannot help it. She recalls the compromise she made with her parents regarding the three occupations—she chose one, and her mother and father each chose the other two.
“After you experience a lifetime of a job, you will see my point,” he father had said when he chose for her the occupation of an attorney. “In the end, the high-paying job is the one that affords for you the luxuries you have grown up with. It is the one you will be begging for after your ‘gratifying’ archaeology career becomes another race against the clock.”
The impact of the needles on her skin stings for half a second, and then a numbing buzz begins to travel through her body, spreading and spreading until she feels nothing.
She blinks to stop the room from spinning, but to no avail.
Her eyelids close, and darkness envelopes.
Madelaine turns to find a fifty-something-year-old man addressing her. A yellow hardhat strapped on his head and a clipboard of sketches clutched in his hand, he says, “Grab your equipment, hon. We’re leaving for the site.”
And with those words, the man turns and leaves the tent, his heavy field boots creating little mushrooms of dust as they make impact with the ground.
Madelaine blinks, adjusting to the new world around her. She looks from one side of the tent to the other. There is scarcely anything here within the billowing confines of the fabric walls, save for the table set up in the front, with a blueprint of some kind of complex sprawled over it.
She walks to the table and sees an equipment belt lying on a chair. A side bag of the belt, holding a pocketknife, is imprinted on the front with the initials M.H.
Madelaine recognizes her own handwriting, and she picks up the equipment belt and straps it on.
Naturally she realizes that her first VR simulation is that of an archaeologist, the occupation she had chosen herself.
She takes a closer look at the blueprint on the table.
And then it registers to her.
The sketch is of the Piazza Venezia Square.
She is in a dig site in Rome, and a famous one at that.
The first thing Madelaine notices is that it is hot, unbearably so. Peering at the glaring sun above her, she estimates the time to be somewhere around 9:00 A.M.
She sees a dark bank of clouds to the west, rain falling from the sky in sheets, although it does not look like a storm will be chasing them out of the dig site today.
Everything seems so real, she thinks as she surveys the site in front of her. The loose pits are approximately two meters deep, and most of the digging is done by local men hired from neighboring villages, with the excavation of delicate objects being handled by the archaeologists themselves. Their students, brought along from their respective universities, stand up top with the screeners, making sure that every artifact goes into properly labeled bags.
“Hey,” a voice says, pulling her back to the present.
Madelaine turns to find the same man standing behind her once again. On the drive from the “office” tent to the dig site, she learned that his name is Derek. He is the lead archeologist of the project, overseeing almost all of the administration duties—although, judging by the soot on his cargoes, it looks like Derek has already had some time to jump into the pits and excavate.
“Grab your notebook and follow me. I need you to take down some notes.”
Madelaine does not say anything except “Of course” and trails after him.
Derek talks fast, and his thoughts never move along a tangential line. Sometimes Madelaine does not even know whether he is speaking to her or muttering to himself. He makes an exchange with one of the local diggers here, or inquires about new findings with another archaeologist close by. On occasion, as he weaves through the dry, dusty maze of a dig site, he tells Madelaine to pay specific attention to this or make a brief note of that.
Despite the mild headache from the midday heat, she is finally starting to submerge herself in her tasks. As she walks alongside Derek—the native Italian excavators call him Dr. Terryl, while the younger students address him as Professor T—she will sometimes catch an image or hear a phrase that reminds her of home, reminds her that everything around her is merely a manipulation of the brain.
“Note the change in soil here,” Derek says, stopping as he points to an area lying on the outer fringe of the mapped dig site. “I see some discarded ash running along the top tier.”
“Perhaps an indication of wall remains,” Madelaine adds, examining the dirt.
Derek chuckles. “Stole the words right from my mouth.” He walks forward, stepping out of the dig site’s formal boundaries and entering unsanctioned territory. “I believe it was either you or Hassan who wrote up and submitted the extension proposal for this unit, correct?”
Madelaine barely hears a word of his question, for her eyes wandered from the loose soil back to the dig site behind them. Standing at ground level now and surveying the progress in the pits below, she can feel the smile on her face in her chest.
From the beads of sweat running off the sun-burnt necks of the local workers as they dig according to the notes of Madelaine’s fellow colleagues, both foreigners and natives working together to unearth history, to understand and interpret humanity in a way that transcends the blockades of culture and language and land, the thought of everything going on inside the boundaries of the site makes her heart beat to an unsteady metronome of excitement.
“Hello? Anyone home inside that pretty little head of yours?” Again, Derek’s voice.
Madelaine’s eyes move back to him again, who says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you today, but you better fix it before I start to rethink my decision to promote you to Forensics Supervisor at the Prehistory Lab.”
Three years, a doctorate, and seven more promotions later, Madelaine finds herself working late one Wednesday night in the Historical Archaeology Lab, finishing the analyses and documentations of a few artifacts that were shipped here yesterday from Siberia.
Frustration courses through her mind as she examines a cracked side of a porcelain water pitcher.
She should not be here in the lab like this, working when all she wants to do is curl up in a bed. But since her boyfriend Evan had dumped her over dinner tonight, she did not feel like returning home and breaking the news to her roommate. No. Tonight she will stay here, in the lab in which she spends almost ten hours a day, the only place to go in order to refocus and detach her thoughts from her personal life.
Ironic, since the reason Evan had broken it off with her is that he felt like she was too obsessed with her job and not serious enough about him.
Just as well, Madelaine tells herself as she records the material observations on the research database. Evan strangely reminded her of her father. Although the man never actually came out and voiced his opinion about her career in archaeology, she could tell every time she talked about work that Evan disapproved, just like her father. An investment banker, Evan’s sole duty is to watch money grow.
Evan never understood her reasons for going into archaeology. Evan couldn’t.
And it wasn’t her breakup with him that is making her heart ache. No, it wasn’t.
So then why do I feel on the verge of losing my sanity? she asks herself.
With gloved hands, she now moves on to lift a few intact drinking gourds and a clay mug out of the sealed titanium crate.
The new material is keeping her mind off her breakup, but the flowering pain in her chest refuses to subside.
Again, for hundredth time or so, Madelaine reflects back on what her father had told her before she entered Dr. Winston’s office.
“In the end, the high-paying job is the one that affords for you the luxuries you have grown up with. It is the one you will be begging for after your ‘gratifying’ archaeology career becomes another race against the clock.”
She wonders if her father was right, after all.
Do I really feel that way?
Madelaine’s eyes take a sweep of the extent of the lab, with its temperature control systems and lights. The computers, the microscopes, the maps, the shelves of supplies that cover an entire wall of the room… it is within these confines that she works, day to day, hour to hour.
How many times has she caught herself staring at the digits of the clock on the wall, willing them with her mind to change faster?
With that a cold, clammy fist forms at the pit of her stomach, and she suddenly cannot breathe.
Tears pool and finally fall from her eyes, blurring her world as she hits the side of the desk, grabbing onto it to steady herself.
Her father was right. She is getting bored. She is feeling trapped.
The shattering series of crashes refocuses her eyes, clears the ringing from her head.
Blinking, she looks over at what slid off the desk and fell to the floor.
For a moment her heart stops as she realizes what she has just done.
The glass beakers and vials can always be replaced, but the now-fragmented clay sculpture of the Greek god of agriculture, Demeter—which Madelaine had taken out to do a side-by-side comparison with the Siberian artifacts—represents a part of history that she is responsible for destroying.
“Oh my God,” she says, rubbing the shock off her face as she tries to steady her racing heartbeat.
The sculpture is supposed to be shipped back to Greece next week, to the Heraklion Museum in Crete.
Thirty seconds crawl by as Madelaine stands over the damaged sculpture, gaping at what she has ruined.
And then, letting out a deep sigh, she bends down to pick up the pieces.
She freezes as she sets the clay back on the desk. In the silence, her fingers run over the parts.
It takes a few more seconds, but Madelaine then realizes that the pain, the guilt, the humiliation bubbling inside her has disappeared.
This is nirvana, she thinks, picking up one of the fragmented sculpture pieces, a little bigger than her hand.
She throws it against the floor, watching it split into ten to twenty little pieces.
All of a sudden she feels an awakening sweep through her.
Why did I work so hard for three years, studying, traveling, and sacrificing everything else while the only thing driving me forward, my passion, slowly ran out?
She grabs the Siberian porcelain pot from her desk and hurls it across the length of the lab, cringing just a fraction as she listens to the freezing shatter of a four-hundred-year-old portion of history.
Why should it matter whether she preserves these artifacts or smashes them into smithereens? After all, this is only a virtual world.
There are no consequences here.
There are no risks.
Madelaine takes a deep breath, running a finger through her hair. It feels cold, a little brittle.
The anger inside her escalates into a dull roar at the back of her head.
As she exhales and turns around, her gaze falls upon the rest of the lab’s artifacts, illuminated by soft lights and protected behind a thick glass case on the wall.
Madelaine pauses for only a second before reaching out her hand for the security system to read.
All of this, the effort on her part to the historical artifacts before her, will become meaningless the moment she is unplugged from this virtual reality life.
And she knows that this life has now reached its end.
“Access granted,” echoes the handprint reader.
With a low hiss, the glass cover of the case slides apart.
The glass clicks to a stop, and something inside Madelaine snaps.
Sweeping her arm across the first row, she sends the entirety of the Ming dynasty vases crashing to the floor.
The exaltation of no longer caring swells within her, and among the burst and clatter, she moves onto the next row of priceless pottery, then the next.
She hears footsteps in the distance, urgent murmuring whose volume grows into panicked shouts.
Stepping away from the artifacts, she takes one last breath of this world’s oxygen as the lab doors beep open. She has never attempted this before, to will herself to jump out of this life and slip into the next.
Take me out of this world, she wishes. She does not know how to make contact with her brain mapper in the real world, but with Dr. Winston’s assurance at the forefront of her mind, she shuts her eyes and proceeds.
Take me away from this life and cast me into another.
Suddenly the shouting of swarming people around her, a chaotic mess of her colleagues’ accusations, dulls into a silent movie.
Perception of color fades from her eyes next, as the room, in shades of grey now, begins to dissolve.
She feels something soft brush against her brain—is it her brain? She does not know. This peculiar hold has settled under the surface of her skin, yet does not seem as if it is hindering the mind.
But Madelaine does not have time to dwell on the position of this gentle texture much longer, for soon her body loses all feeling, and absolute darkness consumes her once more.
Madelaine opens her eyes to find herself sitting in an office bigger than even Dr. Winston’s, staring straight out at a glittering Lake Michigan under the glaring Chicago sun—as a native of the city, she does not need much time to figure out her surroundings.
But when she swivels back around in her chair, she has absolutely no idea who the man sitting across her desk is.
“Come now, Ms. Toledo,” the man says, leaning forward in his chair. Dressed sharply in a black wool suit, and with his salt and pepper hair combed back, he does not possess the aura of the common man, but someone greater, someone who turns brick to marble, then marble to powder at whim.
Nevertheless… Ms. Toledo?
Madelaine frowns, but quickly composes herself and looks around her desk for some clues, context.
There is a letter atop a stack of papers to her right, addressed to a Madelaine Toledo.
She looks at the 3D hologram computer to her left and sees that there are folders marked Toledo everywhere on the default screen.
She comes up with one conclusion: I’m married.
She checks the date on the screen: 2101.
Two years out of college, and she is married.
As she scans her spacious office, taking in the outward-caving ceiling, the paper-white walls, two with protruding glass bookshelves stacked full of…
She squints. If she is not mistaken, there are books lining the shelves—thick, bound books, with pages of text all glued together—collector’s items from the early twenty-first century.
She manages to catch the bold lettering on one of the books’ bindings.
Law Outlines: Criminal Law
And now she realizes which simulation she has jumped into.
She is a lawyer, and looking around at her office, a successful one.
This is the life, the career, the status that her father had dreamed up for her.
All of a sudden the sixty-something-year-old man sitting across from her becomes much more interesting.
He must be a client, then. Or another attorney in the firm. Her boss, perhaps? Judging from the silver-plated Edmund, Taylor, and Price hanging above the double doors of her office, she assumes that they are the three partners of her company.
“You see, here’s the thing,” the man proceeds. “Daryl Summers and our family… well, let’s just say that I’ve known him since we were in diapers. Believe me when I tell you that your client is not innocent in Frannie Ryan’s murder.”
So this Daryl Summers is her client. But, “Frannie Ryan.” Madelaine’s tone makes the question sound more like a statement.
“Yes. My sister.” Madelaine sees a wave of anger ripple through the man’s face. “May she rest in peace.”
Eyes wet now, though not to the point of tears, the man clears his throat and says, “I realize that Mr. Summers is paying you a hefty amount to defend him. After all, this case will be a lot of effort. By the time we hear the outcome, you will have more than earned your fees.”
Madelaine pauses a moment, observing the cool, calm expression on the man’s face. “What is it that you’re getting at, Mr.…?”
“Gerald Simons,” the man replies. “And I guess what I’m trying to say is: How would you like to not only earn double what your client is paying, but do almost no work for his upcoming trial?”
A small smile of disgust touches Madelaine’s lips at his words. Now she understands. The man is here to bribe her, to persuade her to purposely lose a trial.
“I can send you all the files you need in order to stage a convincing attempt to defend Summers. I am only hoping that you, ahh, let the prosecutor win the deciding arguments in the trial.”
A few seconds pass. Madelaine keeps silent, curious to see what Simons will do next.
“Okay, you know, I apologize,” Simons says, fumbling to fill the silence. “I’m being insensitive. Losing a case will hurt your reputation as a defense attorney. And that, Ms. Toledo, needs to be considered as well. Hmm…” He drums his fingers against the side of his head, staring at her with a studying expression. “How do you feel about tripling your lawyer fees?”
Madelaine lets out a sigh, sifting through Simons’ proposal.
Under normal circumstances, she would have refused the bribe in a heartbeat. She is not one to sell out her principles in exchange for extra zeros behind her bank account sum.
But this is a different world, different life, different circumstances.
Although she is staring at Simons, her mind remains wrapped around something her father had said to her before, after he had picked a life of law for her in this three-series VR simulation.
“You don’t need to practice corporate or international law, dear,” her father had said. “In fact, perhaps you should become a criminal lawyer, as good at dissecting people as you are… just for goodness sake, give up archaeology and be someone respectable in your community.”
Madelaine’s stomach churns with a cold fire as she contemplates Simons’ proposition. Why shouldn’t she take the bribe? More money. Less work.
And for God’s sake, she is not in a real world anyway. So what is the risk?
Someone respectable in the community, she repeats to herself, feeling the full extent of the irony. I’ll show you respectable…
“I trust that you’ll transfer the money into my account by discreet means?” Madelaine says.
The sunset’s pink and orange arms greet her as she steps out of her office building, heading for the t-pod station down the street—at least, that was its location in the real world.
She lets out a breath of relief to see the station in the same spot, shuttling waves of people through the sky with ship-sized white pods hurling west, others north or south.
In the last three hours, at least she managed to find out where she lives.
As she waits for the next westbound pod, an alert pops into her Com-chip inbox. The message flashes across the Com-film of her eyes, accompanied by a picture of a smiling man. Dark-haired, bright grey eyes.
Incoming Call from Hubby.
So I am married, she thinks, and answers the call. And he’s cute.
“Hey, you off work?” Her husband’s voice echoes off the walls of her head.
“Yeah, on my way home now,” Madelaine says. It’s strange how familiar and comforting his voice sounds, though she has never met the man.
“You know, I’ve been sitting at home all day, wondering what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, what you should be doing—and you should be at home curing your longing husband of his… err… well.”
Madelaine smiles in spite of herself. Her pod has docked in.
“Actually, I need you to pick up some groceries,” her husband continues. “Somebody has cleaned out our pantries, dear.”
“I know you’re not blaming me,” Madelaine says, boarding the pod. The glass doors close after reaching the passenger limit and takes off. “I’ll get you your groceries. Feel free to sit on your ass and wait patiently for me.”
“A strenuous demand, but I’ll do my best.” And he disconnects their Link.
I have got to learn his name, Madelaine tells herself as she searches the flashing route screen on the pod doors.
There is a grocery store right next to the t-pod station at the next stop. Perfect.
She gets off when the pod arrives at her destination, heading for the store.
Passing the parking lot, she catches sight of a middle-aged woman climbing out of her car. The woman slings her purse over her shoulder and hurriedly strides toward the front doors of the store without bothering to look behind.
Madelaine is just about to pick up the pace as well when she notices that the woman has failed to completely close her car door.
But before the car’s security system can detect and automatically shut the door, Madelaine walks forward and opens it wider.
She does not understand why she did this, to be honest. Perhaps she wanted to do something impulsive. And why not? After all, if the laws in a fake world are fake, then so are the consequences.
Looking around the parking lot, Madelaine cannot find a single pair of eyes on her. It is rush hour in downtown Chicago. Everyone has homes to return to, families to eat with, lovers to embrace.
She takes a peek at the contents of the car. Just a quick peek, out of curiosity.
In the three to four seconds that her eyes linger on the interior of the car, she catches sight of a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and handful of dollar bills and coins stuffed in the cup holders.
Madelaine can already feel her heartbeat speeding up, thinking of the possible results should she be caught. If this were the real world, that is.
Her eyes settle upon the spare change in this stranger’s car. There are seven, eight dollars at the most.
If this is the rush she feels from trespassing into someone else’s car, she wonders what kind of high she can get from grabbing the money here and taking off.
She flashes back to the moment in her office, when she accepted Gerald Simons’ bribe to lose an upcoming trial.
A twinge of guilt pierces through her.
If you can take hundreds of thousands of dollars from an oily jackass like Simons, why can’t you take the dollar bills in front of you? she asks herself.
Money, whether in the form of liquid assets or cold cash, is still money.
And so, with adrenaline funneling through her veins like exploding fireflies, she grabs a handful of bills and the cigarette lighter and runs.
The thundering noise inside her chest subsides to a fast fluttering as she steps through the front doors of the grocery store.
She looks left and right, searching for a suspicious stare, a knowing frown.
No one saw you, whispers the tiny voice inside her head.
At this reassurance, an easy smile drops over Madelaine’s face, and she strides over to one of the grocery order machines lining the sides of the walls.
As she reaches the machine, however, an older heavy-built woman steps in front of her. Feeling the exchanging brush of shirts between them, Madelaine stumbles back a step as the woman logs into the grocery order system, blocking Madelaine off.
“Umm, excuse me,” Madelaine says, blinking in surprise. “You cut in front of me.”
After a long moment, the woman looks back and scoffs when her eyes and Madelaine’s lock.
“I don’t think so,” the woman replies. And before Madelaine can respond, she turns back around and starts looking through her grocery catalogue again.
It doesn’t take much longer for the simmering lava in the pit of Madelaine’s stomach to explode.
A fake character in my own fake world is going to snub me?
“Hey.” She taps the woman on the back. Her hands are shaking.
The woman turns, an annoyed look spreading over her face.
And then all of a sudden her expression of annoyance flashes to fear, as Madelaine brings back her right arm, fingers curling into a fist.
Having never punched anything in her life, let alone anybody, Madelaine winces at the impact of her fist with the woman’s face. It feels like hitting cement, and as the woman cries out in pain and folds to the floor, moaning, Madelaine retracts her arm. Her fingers uncurl, her knuckles stinging.
Nevertheless this release of anger feels good. Better than good.
“What is the matter with you?” the woman shrieks as people begin to crowd around. Madelaine now sees that her punch landed just to the right of the woman’s nose, and that the area is now swelling into a red-purple bruise.
The woman staggers to her feet, attempting to blink away the wetness from her eyes, but to no avail.
At the sight of tears, regret begins to seep into Madelaine, and she tries to apologize.
But before she can say a word, the woman lunges for her.
The force of her shoulder slamming into Madelaine’s left hip travels through the rest of her body, a blast of white-hot pain, sending both of them to the ground.
Madelaine gasps in shock, but quickly collects her bearings and kicks the woman off.
Jumping up despite the ringing pain in her head, Madelaine wastes no time in climbing atop the woman and delivering a second punch to the face.
She loses count of how many times she hits the woman as she sits pinning the meaty arms to the ground, but somewhere through the haze of Madelaine’s rage, two pairs of hands pull her up.
“You are under arrest for assault and disrupting the peace,” says the police officer to her right. “You have the right to…”
Madelaine tunes out as the officer continues to Mirandize her and looks down at the woman she has just beaten, her face swollen and bleeding.
For a moment Madelaine receives a pang of guilt.
However it does not take long for the companion inside her head to tell her: She’s a fake character. The wounds, the tears, they’re nothing but simulations.
And just like that Madelaine’s teeth unclench, and the heaviness in her chest dissolves.
She has never taken a trip to the police station before, much less seen the inside of a holding cell.
I guess every day is a chance to try something new.
It takes her husband less than an hour to arrive at the police station. By now Madelaine has learned his name: Paul.
Striding toward her, sitting alone in the holding cell with her back against the wall, a slow smile crawls across Paul’s face. “Ahh,” he says, stopping in front of her.
She stands up and walks toward him, her stomach churning. He looks even more handsome in person, with eyes full of intensity, a bright contrast to his tanned skin. A tie hung loose around his neck, he chuckles and says, “This, my dear, is the definition of irony. The criminal lawyer behind bars…”
Madelaine can feel an embarrassing heat traveling to her cheeks, but she forces a smile nevertheless. “So then are you here to bust me out, prince charming?”
Paul pauses a moment, frowning. And then he replies, “Not until you explain what the hell you were thinking, starting a fight in the middle of a grocery store. And the cops also said that you had stolen some petty cash from another woman’s car?”
Madelaine does not have an answer for him, and after a few seconds of thought, says, “Don’t you ever wish sometimes that you could do something not because it’s logical, but just because you can?”
“I do plenty of illogical, spur of the moment things,” Paul says. “But there is a line that people do not cross, because crossing that line gets them into appealing places like this.” He gestures at the bars of the holding cell separating them.
Madelaine contemplates her husband’s words, repeating them over in her head. She can’t help but wonder if Paul knows about her under-the-table deals as a defense attorney.
Can’t hurt to ask, she reasons, and says out loud, “A line? Paul, I think you and I both know that I’ve already crossed that line, as a human being, as an attorney. Granted, my line wasn’t so clear, but that does nothing to dilute the wrongness of my actions.”
A look of panic flashes into Paul’s eyes, confirming Madelaine’s supposition of his knowledge about her inflated salary.
Paul looks left and right before leaning closer to the bars of the cell. “Let’s not do this here, of all places,” he says, his voice lowered to a mere whisper. “We’ll deal with your conscience when we get home, alright?”
The words feel like a piece of glass rammed into Madelaine’s chest.
She backs away from the bars and sits down again as the guard opens the cell door.
“Madelaine, come on,” Paul says, beckoning for her. “Please.”
Madelaine only looks away and scoffs. “Go home,” she says, staring at the wall. She wonders how many times she has sent innocent people to jail for money, and how many times she has felt guilty about it, in this life. She doesn’t think she wants to know the answers to these questions. “I can deal with my own conscience here.”
“Fine,” Paul says, throwing his hands up in the air and turning to the guard. “If you could just leave the door unlocked and alert me when my wife finally decides to stop pouting and come home…” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a five-hundred-dollar bill. “I would appreciate it.”
The guard accepts the bill and quickly slides it into his pant pocket. “Will do, Mr. Toledo.”
As Paul leaves, Madelaine has to restrain herself from running out and screaming at him. Meanwhile questions are circling through her head. Did he bribe the guard just to spite me? she asks. Or is this just how he—no, we—live our lives?
If it is the latter, then this life must be…
Madelaine frowns. She fumbles through her mind to find an adjective, yet the only word that seems to fit is: easy.
And is it not? Pull in money and push out the fates of the innocent. Then take the money and buy the souls of others.
Madelaine lets out a chuckle, although it pierces her ears.
She has seen enough of this world.
Get me out of here, she dictates to the corners of her mind. Let me live my last life.
She squeezes her eyes shut, waiting for the black curtain of unconsciousness to seep in and crush the fuzzy rays of white light tapping against her eyelids.
It doesn’t take long, and soon, Madelaine finds herself submerged in an abyss of nothingness.
She wakes to find herself sitting in a chair, with little silver disks attached to her fingertips, so light that she can hardly feel them.
There is a large screen before her, displaying a magnified stomach, pale with a line of dark hair from the belly button down. Hanging inches above the stomach are four silver surgical instruments: a blade, an optical fiber probe, a retractor, and a small clamp.
She looks to her right and sees the body of a man lying parallel to this machine that she is Linked to. Unconscious on the surgery table, the man’s stomach is exposed under the same instruments that appear on Madelaine’s screen.
Madelaine jilts in surprise. As her hands shake, the blade and fiber optic follow suit on the screen. At the same time, so do the tools gripped by the surgical robot looming over the patient.
So she is just about to begin surgery.
Madelaine takes in a deep breath, looking around the room. She sees the EKG screen mounted on the wall, just above the clock. She sees the anesthesia monitor sitting on a stand next to the surgery table.
But aside from the patient on the table, she is the only breathing being in the room.
Her hands begin to shake as she looks at the screen before her, then at the patient. According to the anesthesia monitor, the patient is under a spinal anesthesia, numbing the man from the neck down.
So what now?
She closes her eyes, trying to focus on the happenings around her. But the moment she calms herself from the shock of being thrown into a surgery, her thoughts begin to wrap around her prior VR simulation, her husband, both of their corruption.
How easy it is to block out a conscience.
Madelaine has to admit, she is attracted to it. The dark. The other side of her, always there, always suppressed, lusting to meet the world.
Ever since she let go, stopped trying to measure up to the demands of these virtual realities and instead began to try things she would never have done in the real world, she has felt, for the first time, a complete, consuming freedom.
In these worlds, without risk, without real consequences, life has truly evolved into something more. A series of “Why not?”s in place of the responsibilities.
And now, as she stares at the man lying on the surgery table, at her mercy, another “Why not?” surfaces in her mind.
Why not cut him open? Poke around, do some slicing, cutting, see the innerworkings under the skin.
He’s not a real person anyway.
She looks over again at the anesthesia monitor across the room. All she has to do is walk over and shut off the machine, and the numbing agent will soon wear off.
How long, she wonders, will it take for the man to regain consciousness? How long will it take for him to feel the pain of being cut open?
A shiver travels down her spine as she deLinks herself from the surgical robot and shuffles over to the anesthesia monitor.
The hologram projection displaying concentration levels and time increments of reinjection cuts to black as she shuts down the system with a tap of a button.
Letting out a sigh to calm the dizzying buzz in her head, Madelaine then returns to her seat.
She Links herself back up to the surgical robot and, without pausing to think about her actions for another beat, begins to cut a line down the stomach on the screen.
Switching to use the clamp, she then peels back the skin to see the intestines. Four clamps later, the entirety of the abdominal skin has been pulled back like tent flaps.
This, she has seen done in movies.
And now what?
It doesn’t take long for the salt and rust scent of blood to waft from the surgery table to Madelaine’s nose. After all, the two bodies in the room are but five feet apart.
Madelaine takes the fiber optic and zooms in for a closer look. At the very top of the opening is the patient’s esophagus, and then further down the stomach, leading to the small intestine. These are about the only organs she is able to distinguish.
Frowning, she pokes the little tubular chords leading to a white-pink sac.
Is this the liver?
The anger carried forward from the previous VR simulation, the fear of the situation she is now in, even the adrenaline rush from opening up a human body, they have all vanished, replaced instead by a very familiar feeling for Madelaine Hopkins: pure curiosity.
I wonder what will happen if I…
She pokes another bulging sac under the liver, smaller, darker.
But the probe breaks through the surface of the sac, and all of a sudden Madelaine hears a faint pop.
The scream that erupts along with the fountain of blood, squirting up and splattering the camera with red, makes every strand of hair on Madelaine’s body rise to attention.
Her eyes flicker over to the surgery table, where lines of red are spewing out in intermittent bursts.
The man’s fingers are moving. The screaming continues, a high-pitched shrieking that belongs only to the voices of the tortured.
Shaking, Madelaine eases out of her chair and walks over to the table, coming upon the wide-awake face of her patient.
As her eyes and his meet, he reaches out and grasps her hand.
The screams lower in volume, reduce in frequency.
On the EKG machine, Madelaine sees that his pulse is now thready and still weakening.
“Oh, Christ,” she whispers, tears pooling in her eyes as she watches the blood stream out in rhythm with the man’s heartbeat.
It is time to leave.
This is not real, she tells herself as she yanks her hand from his, backing toward the door. He is not real. I can get out of here. I can leave these virtual realities, return to real world.
“Help me,” the man begs as her fingers touch the cold silver door. “Please. It hurts. Hurts… so much.”
His plea erases all thoughts of abandonment from Madelaine’s mind.
Frantically she spins around, scanning for people. There is no one sitting in the viewing room overhead, no one in the washroom behind the glass windows of the OR.
She sighs, feeling a wave of nausea topple over her.
And then on the other side of the room, to the right of the clock reading 2:48 A.M., she sees a blue button the size of the palm of her hand.
She almost trips on the leg of the surgery table as she rushes over to hit the button.
Nothing happens, and all she can do now is hope that help comes soon.
Her trembling gaze settles on the patient once again. No longer screaming, even moaning in pain, he lays on the table with his eyes open, the tips of his fingers twitching.
I need to stop the bleeding, Madelaine realizes as her eyes travel to his stomach, still oozing blood.
She grabs the damp, acidic tissues from the surgical robot’s grasp and presses them over the hole she punctured earlier.
Bright red liquid spills onto her hands, running over her knuckles like rapid water over rocks.
Madelaine almost doesn’t realize the tears in her eyes if not for the stinging saline path they make as they race the mascara to her chin.
“Help me!” she screams into the silence. “Help!”
Seconds after her cry, a human head appears in the washroom connected to the OR. A man, almost sixty, quickly followed by two younger women surgeons.
All three pairs of eyes widen in shock at Madelaine’s situation, taking in the blood pooling out all over the place, the thinning lines on the EKG machine.
And then they act.
Bolting into the operating room, one surgeon grabs the tissues from the surgical robot and presses them over Madelaine’s fingers. “Let me handle this,” she says.
Madelaine backs away, and another surgeon edges in to take her place. “Apply a little more pressure. We’ve got to seal this hole first, and—Christ, the anesthesia monitor is dead!” The surgeon turns to Madelaine now. “Wait outside, Dr. Hopkins. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
“Don’t blame her,” another surgeon says, grabbing instruments from the surgical robot. “It must have been a machine malfunction. God, it punctured the left gastric artery! What the hell was the robot doing up there?”
“It wasn’t a machine malfunction, Dianne. This is a ninth generation robot, best of the best. Any error here is human.”
Madelaine lets out a sigh as she watches the threads on the EKG machine stabilize again, sees the BPM number rise to normal.
Her own heart has stopped racing, the beats no longer bumping into each other inside her chest.
Let me leave, she finally wills the brain mapper. Return me to the real world.
It takes seconds for the shadows to root themselves before her.
She cannot take this anymore, this battle between dark and light, this blossoming nightmare in a fantasy that feels so trappingly real.
And so she closes her eyes and embraces this blanketing darkness for the last time.
Her ears adjust back to the real world before her eyes do, and while the lights and the room are still blurred beyond recognition, she begins to pick up the murmur of a voice.
“Welcome back, Madelaine.” The voice is familiar.
With a soft groan, Madelaine blinks until everything comes back into focus. She sees Dr. Winston standing over her.
“How were your simulations?” he asks as Madelaine eases off the bed. She stretches, feeling sore all over, the feeling that one gets when having slept heavily for far too long.
Madelaine is about to tell him just how enlightening her experience was when she turns to him and realizes the nonchalance seeded in his voice, the knowing amusement in his smile.
She knows better. After twenty years of performing VR simulations, surely Dr. Winston can predict every one of her scenarios by simply examining her portfolio, like he has done uncountable times in the past for a staggering number of patients.
“Why don’t you take a guess?” she finally says. “You designed the simulations. You were monitoring my brain activity, I trust.”
Dr. Winston’s smile widens. “How long did it take you to lose control?”
“Three years into my first simulation,” Madelaine answers. “How long do your patients usually take to… for lack of a better phrase… turn toward their darker sides?”
“As soon as something in their virtual world becomes too real for them to handle, most likely a frustration they already encounter in real life.” Dr. Winston returns to his desk and gestures for Madelaine to take the seat across.
Madelaine smiles to compensate for the bitterness flowering in her chest. “Thank you for perfectly dissecting and analyzing me,” she says, and looks up at the clock on the wall. Only an hour has passed since she stepped into Dr. Winston’s office. “Clearly, you care so much.” The sarcasm is perhaps a tinge too much, but she doesn’t offer an apology.
Dr. Winston shrugs. “I’m paid too well to care,” he says. “My job is to set up a series of simulations for you to experience, so that you can find whatever it is that you are seeking.”
He clicks on his computer and pulls up Madelaine’s portfolio again, projecting it on the wall behind him for her to see. “You wrote here that you wanted to find your place in the world. Your identity. Did you find it?”
Madelaine scoffs, folding her arms across her chest. “You already know the answer to this, Dr. Winston,” she says. “Your simulations are, after all, flawed.”
“There is no outside influence. There is no system of control, no law or order. It’s all a lie.” She reflects back on all the immoral actions she took in the three worlds, feeling a painful twinge of regret, maybe even a hint of fondness. In the simulations, she did what she wanted, for in there, the fear of being herself was dissolved.
“Do you really feel that way?” Dr. Winston asks.
The question sends a shiver down Madelaine’s back.
He continues. “In the last simulation, you almost killed a man. You cut him open. You poked and prodded him like he was a lab animal.”
Madelaine keeps silent.
“I know what you want to say,” Dr. Winston says. “What you’re too ashamed to say. The man wasn’t real. He was a fake character. He was an ‘it’. But still, you refused to leave the simulation until he stabilized. Why is that?”
“I…” Madelaine doesn’t know how to respond.
“He was a simulated person, nothing but pixels and soundboards. This is true. But you fought to help him not because of what he was or wasn’t, but because of who you are. And you are human, and fighting for others—no matter if they are a ‘who’ or a ‘what’—is your responsibility. This is what it means to be human, Madelaine. This is the gift that my simulation has given you.”
A few seconds crawl by, and then Madelaine chuckles and stands up. “So this ‘search for identity’ simulation is really nothing but a crock,” she says. “And we can’t do anything about it, after signing all those confidentiality agreements.”
Dr. Winston smiles back. “Really, dear, I thought you smarter than that. You will never find your identity. You are the one and only you, and trying to ‘find’ another identity to slip into would only be a lie.”
“The one and only?” Madelaine shakes her head. “How many times have you used that line, and how much are you paid to say it? Your delivery seems well-practiced.”
“Take from me only what you wish to take,” Dr. Winston says. “But you are a unique one, Madelaine Hopkins. I’m only asking you to stop chasing your identity and start creating it.”
He takes off his glasses and sets them on his desk. Staring into Madelaine’s eyes with that all-knowing expression, he says, “You are a voice. The world is your echo.”
Silence falls over the room, as Madelaine repeats Dr. Winston’s words in her head. They are comforting, she will not lie. They are easy to believe.
Finally she smiles and says, “We probably won’t be meeting again, Dr. Winston. I hope you continue to live a fulfilling life.”
And with that, she turns and walks toward the door.
“Good luck, Madelaine. You will hear many echoes in your life, I’m sure of it.”
As Madelaine closes the door to his office, she feels strangely calm, strangely sure of herself.
Perhaps it is because she has walked away with a new perspective.
She does not want an echo, for an echo is nothing but a reiteration of one’s own thoughts.
And she wants more than that.
Shelly Li has published multiple short stories in venues such as Nature, Cosmos Online, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Her fiction appears in 10 languages in 13 countries. She recently sold her novel of YA Fantasy, The Royal Hunter, to Philomel Books.